Mike’s happy and luckyBy Kim Francis
April 17, 2008
British filmmaker Mike Leigh’s list of hits are legendary and include Abigail’s Party and Secrets and Lies. Now he’s turning his hand to comedy with Happy-Go-Lucky – but just what motivates one of cinema’s most unconventional directors?
Mike Leigh, the man behind a whole gamut of celebrated British film and television classics, including Abigail’s Party, Life Is Sweet, Secrets and Lies, Career Girls and Vera Drake, is nothing short of a national treasure.
One of the reasons for his fame is his unconventional filmmaking methods, something that has so far denied him Oscar success, despite a staggering five nominations. Given his vocal decrial of Hollywood – he once said: “Given the choice of Hollywood or poking steel pins in my eyes, I’d prefer steel pins” – one imagines that he’s not losing much sleep over it.
On the eve of the release of a DVD box set of 10 of his best-loved and most well-known films, I met Mike in London to talk about his career and his latest film, Happy-Go-Lucky.
It’s a ‘slice-of-life’ look at free-spirited London primary school teacher Poppy (Sally Hawkins).
She’s open and generous – and as funny and anarchic as she is focussed and responsible. She also has time for everybody and whoever she meets falls in love with her.
When she starts driving lessons after her bike is stolen, her maturity and sense of humour help her to deal with her manic instructor, Scott (Eddie Marsan).
She is comfortable with being single and enjoys a full social life – which includes taking flamenco and trampoline lessons – but when she meets a guy through work with whom she clicks, a relationship begins to develop.
Poppy, like Vera Drake, is a character who thrives on helping people, one of many aspects of humanity that clearly intrigues Mike Leigh.
“All aspects of humanity fascinate me,” he says. “What depresses me is when people say, as they have on reaction to this film, that up to now all my films have been grumpy and miserable and negative and dour. That’s rubbish.
“Actually, I am fascinated by how we are in any [situation]. People say to me: “Where do the ideas come from?” Well, the fact is I can embark on a film without knowing so many aspects because everybody’s interested.”
Mike Leigh’s method of putting a film together involves working with the actors on a series of improvisations to build a character and story and ultimately, film.
With Happy-Go-Lucky, and indeed all his films, he denies beginning from a single idea.
Instead, he says somewhat enigmatically: “What I started with on this film you could describe more as a feeling than an idea – but I can’t say any more about the feeling other than the spirit of what you get from the film. You would be right in thinking that what the film is and everything you get from the film is intentional.”
With the film industry ever more concerned with making money, it follows that studios, financiers and producers want tighter controls over the products that go out.
This is something that Leigh has been able to resist, allowing him to maintain the control he has over the working methods he employs.
“In the sense that nobody interferes in the wrong way,
I have always had total control over my films,” he reveals.
“Although, obviously film is a collaborative process, there has to be a general on the battlefield and a film has got to have a cohesive, coherent vision.
“In that sense, it’s important that directors actually direct and writer/directors like me, who make films that come from that personal feeling or view of the world, have to have, if you like to put it like this, sole control.
“Committees can’t make such films. I don’t think committees can make any kind of films.”
Don’t think that Mike spends his days making up films in the privacy of his own bedroom: although he’s the general, he works hard to ensure that the rest of the cast and crew have their say too.
“I collaborate with cinematographers, production designers, editors, composers – you name it – and so it’s very much about the sharing process,” he says.
“But the important thing is that irrelevant people like backers – a dozen producers who don’t know what the hell they’re talking about and all that kind of thing – don’t interfere and compromise anything, like they do with so many films.”
Mike puts his films together with the help of his editor, 77-year-old Jim Clark. He once told Mike that: “The joy of working on this is that for once we haven’t got all these people trooping in and out and screwing up what we do.”
Mike adds: “You know we’ve done the cut and actually the film that you see is pretty much the first cut with our own refinements. So being in control is more about that than it is about any sort of paranoid control freak stuff.
“Of course, you can’t be a film director without being a paranoid control freak!”
It’s easy for Mike Leigh to work in this collaborative, explorative and experimental way now that he is an established and much-admired filmmaker but it must have taken a lot of confidence to assert his methods when he was starting out.
“I made my first feature film [Bleak Moments] when I was 28. Before that I’d been making plays in fringe theatre and within the Royal Shakespeare Company where I was assistant director, developing my way of working.
“So by the time I got to do that film, it’s not as it would have been had I made a film when I was 19, 20 or 21.
“I was in my late 20s so I had been around the block a bit and also I worked with other people and we were all in it together.
“Again, you don’t make films by yourself. Having said that, if we’re talking about confidence and the question is: ‘Did I s*** myself when I made that film?’ and if the question is: ‘Do I still s*** myself when I make them?’ then the answer is: ‘Yes’ because the day you stop s****ing yourself is the day you’re in trouble, basically.
“You’re only as good as what you’re actually doing and the fact that I’ve made 149 films [laughs] – actually this is my 18th – you’ve still got to get out there and do it and justify your existence on the planet.”
Leigh has created many characters in his 37 years as a filmmaker, all of which can be called eccentric, idiosyncratic or, indeed, normal. When asked if he is anything like Happy-Go-Lucky’s driving instructor Scott, he says: “We’ve all got a bit of Scott in us.
“I wouldn’t say I was devoid of Scott-ness. In a way, this is the point, none of the characters are simply X or Y or Z, or black or white: none of us are. There are lots of bits of all of us in these characters.”
A shrewd observer of all human life, Mike finds himself watching people all the time and it is something he has always done.
Born in Salford, Manchester in 1943, he was just six when his father banned him from drawing caricatures of relatives for fear of offending them. This people watching skill has stayed with him to this day.
He says: “Sometimes I’ve actually had people say: ‘What are you looking at, mate?’ and I’ve now got a stock answer, which is: ‘Oh, sorry – you look like someone I know’ and that gets me out of it! You can’t say: ‘I’m a famous filmmaker and I’m studying you.’”
So next time you feel the gaze of a bearded 65-year-old on you, check out the next Mike Leigh offering – you just might see yourself on the big screen.
- Happy Go Lucky (15) is on nationwide release from Friday